Penn State faculty join large study on higher ed teaching and learning practices

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State is one of five universities participating in a new study of teaching and learning practices in higher education. 

The study, appropriately named ManyClasses, seeks to extend the knowledge of evidence-based practice in teaching by gathering data from as many classes as possible from across the United States. Eleven Penn State faculty have volunteered to have their classes included in the study.

Students enrolled in these classes will be divided into control and experimental groups, where their responses to different feedback mechanisms will be measured. Those learning outcomes will be reported to researchers, who will analyze the anonymized pooled results. Students who are in the classes being studied were notified and have consented to participate, organizers said.

The unprecedented scale and scope will not only strengthen the validity of the findings, but it also promises to provide new insights into what works to support student learning across a variety of contexts.

Ben Motz, one of the leaders of the study, is a research scientist in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences and a faculty fellow for Academic Analytics in eDS in University Information Technology Services at Indiana University. He says ManyClasses is designed to meet a growing need for reliable measures of teaching measures that are effective in improving student learning.

“A recent meta-analysis found that when an education study is repeated by researchers who were not on the original study team, there’s only a 50% chance of replicating the original findings,” Motz said. “In order to better understand why some studies might show different results than others, and to systematically evaluate the generalizability of ‘what works,’ one obvious solution is to cast a wider net.

"Rather than testing a theory with an experiment in a single class, the ManyClasses approach involves an educational experiment embedded in dozens of classrooms, spanning student populations, institutions, disciplines and course formats.”

Motz said the study will emphasize diversity across independent samples and hopefully help researchers and teachers understand how instructional recommendations are more or less effective for different students in different contexts.

Also on the ManyClasses team are Paulo Carvalho, Carnegie Mellon University; Josh de Leeuw, Vassar College; and Emily Fyfe and Rob Goldstone, Indiana University.

Laura Cruz, associate research professor of Teaching & Learning Scholarship at the Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence at Penn State described the project as “groundbreaking.”

“Our faculty have the opportunity to get in on the ground floor of a national project that is likely to generate new insights into teaching and learning practice for years to come,” Cruz said. “The opportunity to participate comes at an auspicious time in Penn State’s support for its teaching faculty, who may now be promoted in rank based on activities such as participation in teaching research.”

Participating faculty will not only benefit from the insights gained in the study, but they will also be included as authors on the published findings. The first paper generated by the study, describing an overview of the concept, was recently approved as a registered scholarly report.

Melina Czymoniewicz-Klippel, assistant teaching professor in the Department of Biobehavioral Health at Penn State, is one of the professors participating in the study. She said the study “affords me the opportunity to contribute to a larger project aimed at better understanding potential mechanisms for fostering student learning outcomes.”

“In particular, this study is seeking to better understand how the timing of feedback impacts if, and/or how, students learn from their quiz and exam performance,” Czymoniewicz-Klippel said. “My role is easy; by simply inviting my students to participate in the study I can help facilitate a larger data set.”

Also participating from Penn State are: Noel Habashy, instructor and adviser of international agriculture in the College of Agricultural Sciences; Shay Jones, adjunct lecturer of public speaking and communications at Penn State Harrisburg; Maung Min, assistant teaching professor of business at Penn State Lehigh Valley; Tracey Carbonetto, lecturer of mechanical engineering at Penn State Lehigh Valley; Eric Robbins, assistant teaching professor of finance, Penn State Behrend; Nikolaos Tsotakos, assistant professor of biology at Penn State Harrisburg; Jennifer Keagy, director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at Penn State Harrisburg; Alison Bonner, assistant teaching professor in mathematics at Penn State Lehigh Valley; Daniel Jackson, assistant teaching professor of astronomy, physics and mathematics at Penn State Lehigh Valley; and Philip Stuczynski, lecturer of business and finance at Penn State Behrend.

The Schreyer Institute of Teaching Excellence is part of the Penn State Office of Undergraduate Education, the academic administrative unit that provides leadership and coordination for University-wide programs and initiatives in support of undergraduate teaching and learning at Penn State. Learn more about Undergraduate Education at